Birthday edition: the genius and eclecticism of Giacinto Scelsi

In my posts, I normally tend to focus on composers whose works are well off the beaten path, but today is something of an exception. Although his works were mostly neglected during his own lifetime, the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, who would have turned 114 today, has become more and more widely recognized over the past few decades for the creativity of his works and the pioneering techniques they utilized – many of which are now staples of modern music.

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Scelsi at 30 (Wikipedia)

Scelsi was born to an aristocratic family near the city of La Spezia on January 8, 1905. He spent most of his childhood on his mother’s estate, where he learned music, chess, and fencing from a private tutor. Later in childhood, Scelsi began taking private lessons with the composer Giacinto Sallustio before going on to study with students of Alban Berg and Alexander Scriabin in Austria and Switzerland. As a result of his studies, Scelsi became the first Italian composer to extensively use dodecaphony, although he rarely utilized it in his mature works.

During this time, Scelsi also became active in intellectual circles, meeting the likes of Virginia Woolf and Jean Cocteau. Furthermore, his travels in Egypt in 1927 marked his first exposure to non-European music, an event which would prove pivotal later in his career.

In the mid-1930s, Scelsi began organizing performances of contemporary works by Hindemith, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, introducing them to Italian audiences for the first time. However, due to Mussolini’s strict enforcement of laws against music by Jewish composers, these concerts subsided. Over the next few years, Scelsi frequently traveled away from Italy; he was in Switzerland during the outbreak of World War II. During the war period, Scelsi continued to compose and develop his musical style and married an Englishwoman, Dorothy Ramsden.

When his wife left him after the war, Scelsi fell into a psychological crisis; in 1948, he entered a sanatorium in Switzerland. During this time, he developed a profound interest in Eastern spirituality and significantly transformed his compositional thinking. Interestingly, Scelsi’s time in the sanatorium also provided inspiration for one of his most famous works; he would often pass the time by repeatedly playing a single note at a piano, leading to the composition of his Quattro pezzi per Orchestra over ten years later.

Written in 1959 and premiered two years afterward, Quattro pezzi is built on a completely different foundation from any previous composition in the classical repertoire. Rather than focusing on some sort of melody and harmony as most other composers had done, each of Scelsi’s four pieces are based on a single note which is subsequently modified through changes in tone, dynamics, rhythm, and timbre (the “quality” of a particular sound). In focusing on these aspects of the music rather than on harmony, Scelsi directly or indirectly influenced many late 20th-century composers, including Tristan Murail – one of the founders of spectralism – who continued down this path.

Scelsi’s idiosyncrasies extended not only into his style of composition, but also into his persona. Because he considered his compositions as conveying a higher plane of existence to the listener, he refused to associate the image of himself with his music; instead, he represented himself by an Eastern symbol, a line under a circle. In addition, he often ignored the paradigm of composition and notation for his pieces, instead improvising on the piano; tape recordings of these improvisations were transcribed by collaborators before being orchestrated and modified after consultation with performers.

Although completely unknown in the early part of his career, Scelsi and his works became more well-known in the 1970s, when he began collaborating with musicians like the Arditti Quartet and the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti. During this time, he also met and befriended the American composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, and Alvin Curran.

In the last decade of his life, Scelsi edited and recorded La Trilogia, a work nearly four hours long which Morton Feldman called Scelsi’s “autobiography in sound.” In the mid-1980s, a number of his works began being premiered in concert halls, including an acclaimed 1987 concert in Cologne; he attended all of the premieres and personally supervised many rehearsals. Less than a year after the Cologne concert, on August 9, 1988, Scelsi passed away at the age of 83.

Scelsi was a prolific composer, writing hundreds of works across almost every genre of classical music. In addition to his influence on spectralism, he was revered among members of Ennio Morricone’s free improvisation group, “Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza,” who dedicated a track on the album ‘Musica Su Schemi’ to him. Scelsi’s music also makes an appearance in the Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island along with the likes of Penderecki, Ligeti, and Cage.

All my information in this post came from, and an abstract of a paper in the Journal of Musicological Research. Thank you again for reading!

I’ve included YouTube links to some other works by Scelsi below. This is just a small subset of his compositions that are available on YouTube – search his name and you’ll find many more.

The remarkable achievements of Luise Adolpha Le Beau

When female composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries come to mind, some of you might think of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn; for those who have looked more into this topic, you might also recognize the names of Amy Beach, Emilie Mayer, and Louise Farrenc. However, one female composer whose achievements are often overlooked is Luise Adolpha Le Beau.

Le Beau in 1872 (Wikipedia)

Born in 1850 in Rastatt, Germany – a town I had the opportunity to briefly visit this past summer – Le Beau was the daughter of a military officer, Wilhelm, and his wife Karoline. In addition to serving in the military, Wilhelm was also a pianist and composer, and upon his retirement in 1856 he began giving his daughter piano lessons. Just two years later, at the age of eight, Le Beau composed her first work.

At 13, Le Beau was sent to a local girl’s school, where she studied languages for three years. During this time, she also began studying piano with Hofkapellmeister (court chapel master) Wilhelm Kalliwoda at Karlsruhe and also took singing lessons from the noted tenor Anton Haizinger. After graduating with a degree in 1866, she would spend the rest of her life on music.

In 1868, Le Beau debuted as a pianist, playing piano concertos by Beethoven and Mendelssohn in Karlsruhe. Two years later, she met Franz Lachner and Anton Rubinstein, two important musical figures of the late 19th century, and in 1873 she began taking lessons with Clara Schumann in Baden-Baden; due to differences between the two as well as an aversion to Schumann’s teaching methods, these lessons lasted for only one summer. The following year, Le Beau toured the Netherlands, where she performed in Utrecht, Arnhem, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Amsterdam.

Looking to further her studies, Le Beau turned to none other than Hans von Bülow, a student of Liszt and one of the most renowned conductors of the 19th century. On von Bülow’s recommendation, Le Beau and her family moved to Munich, where she studied with the pianist and organist Josef Rheinberger at the Royal Music School. During this time, Le Beau faced an obstacle common to many of her female contemporaries; because of school regulations, she was not allowed to be tutored with male students.

While studying in Munich, Le Beau toured the Bavarian countryside, performing her own compositions with the singer Aglaia Orgeni and the violinist Bartha Haft. She also worked briefly as a music critic, writing for the “Allgemeine Deutsche Musik-Zeitung” in Berlin beginning in 1878, but stopped writing articles after her reviews were shortened and modified by her editor. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), she established a “private music course for daughters of the educated classes” which aimed to prepare women for careers in piano teaching.

In 1880, Le Beau stopped lessons with Rheinberger to focus more on the work of other composers. During the five years that followed, she met Franz Liszt, the critic Eduard Hanslick, and Johannes Brahms; she also wrote several of her best-known works, including a piano quartet, a piece titled “Ruth – Biblical Scenes” for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, and a cello sonata which took first prize in an international composition contest.

Le Beau’s cello sonata is a powerful work reminiscent of Schumann; it is one of many pieces by women composers that deserve to be heard and performed more often.

In 1885, with her parents’ health deteriorating and declining opportunities in Munich, Le Beau took up residence in Wiesbaden, beginning her opera Hadumoth and a piano concerto while also offering lessons in music theory in voice. During this time, her music began being played outside of Europe, with performances in Sydney and Istanbul – a remarkable feat given the obstacles all women composers of the 19th century faced.

Five years later, she relocated again to Berlin, where she completed both pieces, studied music history at the Royal Library, and continued her teaching activities. While in Berlin, she was also nominated for a position at the Royal School of Music, but it was not granted, as the position was not given to women.

In 1893, Le Beau and her family moved again, this time to Baden-Baden. Around the turn of the century, she wrote several more important works, including a symphony and the tone poem “Hohenbaden”. After her mother’s death in 1900, Le Beau’s output decreased, although she completed an unpublished string quintet and an opera, “The Enchanted Caliph.”

In 1903, Le Beau essentially ceased her music career. From 1906 to 1910, she lived in Italy, publishing an autobiography, “Memoirs of a Female Composer.” After returning to Baden-Baden, she once again became involved in music, appearing occasionally as a concert pianist and writing reviews for a local newspaper; on her 75th birthday, she gave a concert of her own compositions.

Two years later, in 1927, Le Beau passed away. The city of Baden-Baden named its music library after her, and in 2004, a memorial plaque was installed at her former residence in the city, Lichtenaler Straße 46.

Overall, Luise Adolpha Le Beau is one of the most underappreciated female composers of the Romantic era. In total, she wrote over a hundred works, including pieces for piano solo, chamber compositions, symphonic poems, choral works, and operas – not to mention her distinguished career as a pianist!

I will leave you with a recording of Le Beau’s enjoyable piano concerto, completed during her time in Wiesbaden and Berlin.

Thank you again for reading!

Pancho Vladigerov and the Bulgarian classical tradition

Like those of Japan and the Caucasus, many composers from Eastern Europe are often overlooked in present-day repertoire. Today, we’ll look at the work of probably the most influential Bulgarian composer, Pancho Vladigerov.

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Pancho Vladigerov (Wikipedia)

Although born in Switzerland, Vladigerov moved back to Bulgaria with his family at a young age. Interestingly, he was first cousin to the renowned Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who began as a distinguished pianist (even writing a Scriabin-influenced one-movement piano sonata) before starting his literary career. At the age of eleven, two years after his father’s premature death, Vladigerov began studying with the composer Dobri Hristov in Sofia.

In his late teens, Vladigerov moved on a governmental scholarship to Berlin, where he attended a conservatory run by the German Academy of Arts. There, he twice won the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize. After graduation, he worked at the Deutsches Theater, collaborating with the well-known theater director Max Reinhardt. During his time in Berlin, Vladigerov gained fame after many of his works were published by Universal Edition in Vienna and recorded under the Deutsche Grammophon label. In 1932, Vladigerov returned to Sofia to teach at the State Academy of Music, which is now named for him.

Having spent much of his life in Bulgaria, Vladigerov was one of the first to combine the folk music of his country with classical traditions. He adopted this style from a very early age; one of his first notated works – the piano piece Potpourri – contains elements of folk music. Although Vladigerov’s writing developed and evolved over his career, the influence of the Bulgarian folk tradition on his work remained.

That influence is best exemplified by his most famous work, the Vardar Rhapsody. A fiery, nationalistic piece for violin and piano, the Rhapsody was dubbed by one critic as “the Bulgarian equivalent of Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major.”

This powerful work has since been adapted for a variety of different instrumentations, including piano solo and full orchestra. Bearing resemblance to the likes of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid but more passionate and expressive than the former, Vladigerov’s Vardar Rhapsody is one of several works that merits greater attention in concert programs.

Folk influence can also be seen in one of Vladigerov’s most expansive compositions, his first symphony. Written in 1950 based on a Jewish tune taught by his grandfather, the symphony won Vladigerov the Dimitrov Prize, the highest award given to Bulgarian artists.

Vladigerov’s first symphony seamlessly combines the folk tunes of his youth with more modern harmonies and orchestration, creating an orchestral sound distinct from that of his contemporaries.

Vladigerov is also known for writing a number of concerti, comprising two for violin five for piano. While less influenced by folk traditions and harmonically less complex than others working in the same time period, Vladigerov’s piano concerti are interesting and enjoyable works that are not often performed.

In addition to his two symphonies and concerti, Vladigerov wrote extensively for solo piano, a number of chamber works (introducing the violin sonata and piano trio to Bulgaria), fifty concert arrangements of folk songs, ten choral songs, and a plethora of incidental music for the theater. Vladigerov’s son Alexander was also a notable composer in his own right, writing a set of variations on the Bulgarian folk song “Dilmano, Dilbero”.

As usual, thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to follow my blog.

(All information taken from Wikipedia and a doctoral thesis from Rice University.)

Traditional music and modern harmonies: the composers of Azerbaijan

I’m taking final exams next week, so this post is a few days late – my regular schedule will resume starting from my next entry.

Today, I’ll be taking a look at another non-European country, one whose composers are rarely performed in the US today – Azerbaijan. Originating from a country with rich musical traditions (both ethnic and classical), Azerbaijani composers usually tended to adapt forms of traditional music for orchestra or alternatively worked in the somewhat dissonant vein of 20th-century classical music.

Until the 20th century, there had been no operas written and performed in the Islamic world, but that changed in 1908 with Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s “Leyli and Majnun”. Hajibeyov was the first Azerbaijani composer and is thus considered the father of classical music in the country. Several years later, in 1936, the first symphony by an Azerbaijani was written, the first of eight by Jovdat Hajiyev.

Born five years after Hajiyev in 1922, the first Azerbaijani composer to achieve worldwide renown was Fikret Amirov.

Fikret Amirov (source: Wikipedia)

Amirov grew up around music – his father, Mashadi Amirov, not only was a well-regarded singer and performer on the tar (a traditional lute), but also wrote one of the first operas by an Azerbaijani composer, Seyfal mulk. Perhaps most importantly, Amirov’s father was an expert in mugam, a traditional art form that combined poetry and musical improvisation.

In his teenage years, Amirov primarily composed for the piano, entering a local music college before moving on to the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire. After being drafted into the Soviet army and wounded in World War II, Amirov returned to composition. Around this time, Amirov began the work for which he is most remembered, transforming the Azerbaijani art of mugam into a new classical genre, symphonic mugam. Some of his most famous works are in this genre, such as “Shur” (1946) and “Kurd Ovshari” (1949) – which together won him the USSR state prize.

Because of my current schedule, I don’t have the time to analyze “Shur”, but (as usual) I have included a recording of it below.

Thanks to his innovations, Amirov became a relatively well-known composer in the classical world of the mid-20th century; several of his works been performed by renowned orchestras and conductors from that period, such as the Houston Symphony under Leopold Stokowski.

Since Amirov wrote “Shur”, his first symphonic mugam, the genre has been expanded by a number of his compatriots, such as Vagif Mustafazadeh and Hajibeyov’s nephew Niyazi. Furthermore, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, a contemporary composer who combines mugam and 20th-century techniques, has had her works performed by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, Hilary Hahn, and the Kronos Quartet.

Other composers, while still influenced by the melodies of Azerbaijan, preferred to delve into the prevalent styles of classical music at the time. Two composers who exemplified this idiom are Vasif Adigezalov and Gara Garayev. Both of these composers were fairly prolific and have a number of works available on YouTube, but I am including video of a composition I have listened to on several occasions – Garayev’s 24 Preludes for piano.

For me, Garayev’s preludes hit exactly the right balance in a piano piece – neither too heavy and brooding nor too lighthearted, neither wholly tonal nor wholly atonal – giving the listener a pleasant experience through all 45-plus minutes. If anyone is looking for an interesting set of piano works to play, I would highly recommend looking at Garayev – especially in Europe, where much of his work is now in the public domain.

Before I finish this post, I’d like to highlight a few other Azerbaijanis who also deserve mentions here, including a number of notable women composers. Haji Khanmammadov, a student of Garayev, wrote the first concerti for the traditional string instruments tar and kamancheh; in 1974, with the opera “Galin gayasi”, Shafiga Akhundova became the first female composer of an operatic work in the East. Finally, Elmira Nazirova is mostly remembered as the subject of the “Elmira” theme in Shostakovich’s 10th symphony but is a notable composer in her own right, writing a “piano concerto on Arabian themes” with Amirov and (from what limited information I have) at least three string quartets.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this post, feel free to leave a follow so you can stay up to date with my blog. Until next time!

Takashi Yoshimatsu: Romanticism for the 21st century

I have many gripes about the classical music typically played in concert halls today, but one of the most significant is that non-white and/or non-male composers are often overlooked. As a result, several of my posts, such as today’s, will highlight composers from non-Western countries as well as women composers.

Japan has produced many composers with varying styles and ideas, but perhaps only Toru Takemitsu has achieved significant renown in the classical world. Today, I’ll discuss another name in classical composition today: the criminally underappreciated (and underperformed) Takashi Yoshimatsu, born in Tokyo in 1953.

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Takashi Yoshimatsu (source:

In comparison to the previous centuries, today’s classical music is shorter, more spontaneous, and more dissonant, tending towards producing effects that are unexpected to the human ear. The Romanticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries is often considered out of date and unfitting in the 21st. However, Yoshimatsu manages to straddle this gap – he maintains the tonal harmonies of earlier times while incorporating modern extended techniques, particularly in his larger orchestral works.

Perhaps the best proof of Yoshimatsu’s concept is his piano concerto, titled “Memo Flora”. According to Yoshimatsu, “the words ‘Memo Flora’ were written by the poet Kenji Miyazawa on the cover of a notebook that contained notes for a diagram of the placement of flowers (melody) in a flowerbed (score).”

As in almost all piano concerti, the piano interacts with the orchestra, taking the melody at times and less prominent at others. However, instead of aiming to dazzle the listener and show the full range and virtuosity of the instrument, Yoshimatsu’s work creates much more synergy between the piano and its supporting cast.

This synergy is created through both the instrumentation and the way Yoshimatsu utilizes harmony. Instead of a large orchestra, which can include close to 100 instruments, Yoshimatsu writes for a smaller chamber orchestra and entirely omits the trombone and tuba. This creates a much more intimate atmosphere, and removing the harsher tones of the low brass also increases the subtlety and warmth of the orchestral accompaniment. Harmonically, the shifting key of the music keeps the listener interested, while the frequent use of intervals such as fourths and sevenths adds color.

Within this environment, the piano is much more connected to the orchestra, giving the music a “flow” not found in many other concerti. Yoshimatsu’s use of repeated motifs, a constant theme in his work, and the piano’s variations on those motifs add to the concerto’s connectedness.

Overall, Yoshimatsu’s “Memo Flora” piano concerto is one of the most pleasant works I have ever listened to and belongs to a style distinct from both his contemporaries and composers from the previous few centuries. Although it has been recorded a few times before, this concerto deserves to be heard far more than it is now, and it certainly would not sound out of place in any concert hall.

Although I am focusing on only his piano concerto for this post, Yoshimatsu has far more works that deserve greater attention. I will leave you with a few of his six symphonies, many of which are very “earthy” in tone and use existing orchestral instruments in innovative ways to create fresh sounds.

Many other works by Yoshimatsu, such as his cello concerto, trombone concerto, and his other four symphonies, are available on YouTube. Whether you’re actively listening or doing homework, I would encourage everyone to listen to more of his work!

(All non-original material, including Yoshimatsu’s description of the Memo Flora concerto, is from the composer’s website,

Charles Tournemire: master of the organ

Hello, everyone! I’m Pranav, an undergraduate studying classical composition at UC Berkeley. For more information about me and why I started writing, see the “About Me” page.

Today, we’ll take a look at the French composer Charles Tournemire, who is believed to have died on this day in 1939.

Tournemire at the organ (photo:

Tournemire was born in Bordeaux on January 22, 1870. A child prodigy, he was appointed organist at the church of St. Pierre in his hometown at just eleven years of age. In his late teens, Tournemire began studying with César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor at the Conservatoire de Paris, winning first prize in organ there at 21; he also studied at the famed Schola Cantorum with Vincent d’Indy. In 1898, he became the organist of the church of St. Clotilde, where he remained for the rest of his life.

From 1900 to the start of World War I, Tournemire composed his first five of eight symphonies. Although the scores of these works are difficult to obtain, recordings of all of them are available on YouTube. I will focus in particular on two of Tournemire’s symphonies from this period: his second, titled “Ouessant”, and his fourth, “Pages symphoniques.”

Tournemire’s second symphony was inspired by a visit to the island of Ouessant in Brittany. Like most of his other symphonic works, it was written in a Late Romantic idiom, combining the expressiveness and large scale of Romantic music with more chromaticism. (If you’re not familiar with chromaticism, click here for a brief explanation.)

For me, the most powerful aspect of this work (and, indeed, of all of Tournemire’s symphonies) is its ability to transport you to another place. The wave-like motion of the low strings is quite evocative of water, the opening notes of the harp hint at an almost magical landscape, the woodwinds provide a different sonic texture, and the brass add great depth. The fanfare that opens the third movement is joyful and awakening (almost literally so – it serves as my alarm in the mornings!) and provides a contrast to the more somber and mysterious first and second movements.

In my estimation, Tournemire’s second symphony is a well-constructed work which uses the full depth and breadth of the orchestra to create a special atmosphere; it deserves to be heard far more often in concert halls.

Another Tournemire symphony inspired by the landscape of Brittany was his fourth, titled “Pages symphoniques”. Although much shorter than “Ouessant”, it includes many of the same elements and is full of melodies that evoke foreboding, longing, and nostalgia. Another notable aspect of the work is the use of the organ, which plays a beautiful melody around the 13 to 14 minute mark.

Tournemire was drafted into the French army during World War I, during which his country suffered heavy losses. In 1918, in memory of the dead, he composed one of his most intense and moving works: his choral Sixth Symphony. Owing to the composer’s relative lack of fame and the Mahler-size instrumentation required (plus an organ), it is rarely perfomed, but the scale and depth of the symphony is astounding.

Later in his life, Tournemire began focusing more on writing for solo organ. From 1928 to 1936, he composed his masterwork l’Orgue Mystique, an 15-hour-long organ cycle based on the Gregorian chant for each day of the Roman Catholic year. Although the Gregorian chants are over a thousand years old, Tournemire used different rhythms and pedal changes and a variety of different organ stops to create a fresh, warm sound.

While contemporaries like Charles-Marie Widor wrote works for organ that were intended to be performed for both religious and secular purposes, l’Orgue Mystique was written to be used only in liturgy, likely one of the reasons Tournemire is lesser known than other French composers for the organ.

In addition to this monumental work, Tournemire was a well-known improviser on the organ; five of his improvisations were recorded on phonograph in 1930 and later transcribed by Maurice Duruflé.

In 1939, Charles Tournemire died in quite mysterious circumstances. On October 31 (Halloween!) of that year, he left his home to take a walk and never came back; about four days later, his body was found in a bog a fair distance away. Tournemire left behind eighth symphonies, four operas, twelve chamber works and eighteen works for piano solo.

I hope you enjoyed reading this piece! I have several ideas about future composers to write on, but please let me know if you have any suggestions.

(All historical information derived from Wikipedia and AllMusic)